EB First Edition from Wikipedia Commons

A story in the New York Times today, Britannica is Reduced to a Click” reported that The Encyclopaedia Britannicaone of the “grand dames” of the library reference shelf was going  completely digital. After 244 years the publisher would stop printing the 129 pound, 32 volume set. The print  EB was a victim of both technology and Wikipedia, the  “crowd sourced” upstart which boasts 4 million English language articles.

The EB was no doubt, my trusted ally in completing dozens of long forgotten homework projects,  but it was also the source of my first encounter with the fallibility of reference books. In the mid 1960’s I went to a friend’s house to witness the unpacking of the family’s personal set of Encyclopaedia Britannica. I selected the volume containing the only topic about which I considered myself a true expert… “The Beatles.”  I found the right page and to my horror confronted a reference to the “Fab Four” as The Beetles! This no doubt explains my continuing professional recommendation that researchers perform fact checking, by consulting  multiple sources.

My second thought was about A.J. Jacobs the author of the Know it All — a book about  his personal adventures reading all 44 million words in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. AJ  was the guest speaker at  the 2011 PLL lunch and  made the audience of private law librarians roar with laughter at the deep vein of serendipitous discoveries he mined from the 4 pound tomes.  I wondered how AJ would have approached reading the digital EB in a “pre-iPad ” world. I imagined AJ…. strolling into an IRT subway car with a laptop computer strapped to himself  like an accordion or pushing a desktop computer in a shopping cart while strolling down Broadway. So I checked in with AJ tonight and he reported that he was “sitting shiva”… on a stack of  encyclopedia. He has  also posted a  response  to the demise of Encyclopedia Britannica in print on the NY Times “Room for Debate” web page. Enjoy!